District talking of fix for schools

NASHUA – The development of a corrective action plan for the Nashua School District began earlier this month, with local administrators sitting down for an initial meeting with state education officials in Concord.

But there are still questions about the timeline for developing the plan and whether there will be drastic changes in the city’s schools as a result of whatever action is taken.

At last week’s school board meeting, Superintendent Christopher Hottel told board members that he and other administrators met with state officials in Concord on Sept. 4 to discuss the district’s status.

Because Nashua is in its third year as a district in need of improvement, the district must now comply with the sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind act and take a corrective action that is meant to improve test scores.

The district failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress in both reading and math last year. Ed Hendry, the district’s associate superintendent, said scores of special education and English Language Learner students have been most problematic.

As a whole, the district has seen its reading scores improve. In 2005-06, only 66 percent of students scored proficient or better in reading. That improved to 71 percent last year.

The district has been “in need of improvement” since the 2004-05 school year. The district made adequate yearly progress in 2006-07, but failed last year. It takes two consecutive years of making adequate progress to get off the list.

Corrective action, as outlined by No Child Left Behind, must include one of seven specific sanctions, some more drastic than others. The options include replacing school staff, implementing a new curriculum, state takeover of schools and installing new leadership.

“Whatever we come up with has to be substantial and really has to focus on leadership,” Hendry told the board.

But at the same time, Hendry also told the board that he doesn’t think the state will require the district to take some of the more drastic actions available. He said state law prohibits the state from taking over schools.

“There’s no way they’re going to come in here and replace staff or require us to replace staff,” he said. “They’re not going to take the school board authority away. That just won’t happen in New Hampshire.”

Hottel said state officials praised the initiatives that Nashua has undertaken to improve its scores, including a strategic planning process and development of leadership.

“There was a great deal of positive feedback from the state on Nashua,” he said.

However, Hottel’s update at the meeting sparked an impromptu and, at times, heated discussion on whether the state has clearly outlined what it is the district has to do and when it has to do it.

The issue was not on the meeting agenda.

Board member Jack Kelley expressed concern about the lack of a clear deadline for when the district has to come up with a plan.

“Is there a timeline, and if so, do we know what that timeline is?” Kelley asked.

Hendry said he would have to check with the state, but said, “We’re going to get this done as quickly as possible, within the next few months.”

Hendry said the Manchester School District went into corrective action a year before Nashua did, and the state has yet to sign off on a plan for that school district.

Kelley said he had concerns about the state not meeting its obligation to local school districts to oversee the corrective action process.

Board member Sandra Ziehm said the district must do more to meet the standards set out by the state.

“In teaching our children to read and write, we’re not making the grade,” she said. “It seems like we’re in denial about that.”

Mary Heath, deputy commissioner of education, has been assigned to work with the Nashua School District to develop the plan. She said she was impressed with Nashua’s presentation.

She said the next step is to develop a memo of understanding with the school district that will outline the timelines and the terms of what needs to happen next.

“One of the things we’ll be doing is working quarterly to go over the progress they’re making,” she said.

Several schools in Nashua have also been identified as “in need of improvement” and, as a result, are required to offer school choice.

There were 93 students who took advantage of the choice option this year, and the district must provide transportation to those students, using federal funds to pay for it.

In Manchester, representatives from Brown University’s Education Alliance worked with city school officials last year to look at what is keeping the district from meeting the testing standards.

Heath said it is true that the state has yet to follow up by developing a memo of understanding with Manchester, but said that is a result of the district’s turnover at the superintendent position.

Corrective action is a two-year process. Nashua is one of seven districts in the state to have entered into the corrective action process.

Deb Wiswell, administrator of the state’s bureau of accountability, said the first year allows for the district to come up with a plan. The second year, if the district again fails to meet the benchmarks, is for implementing that plan.

The next round of testing in the state is due to begin in October. Students in grades 3 through 8 and 11 are tested in math, reading and writing, but only math and reading are used to determine adequate yearly progress.

The targets for making adequate yearly progress are raised every other year by the state. No Child Left Behind requires that by 2014, every student is proficient in math and reading.